Tuesday, 23 March 2021
Papua New Guinea
I rise today to highlight the unfolding COVID-19 crisis in our nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea. Australia and Papua New Guinea share a very tight bond. Indeed, the Commonwealth star on the Australian flag has seven points to this day, as a point was added for Papua New Guinea at the start of the 20th century. This is a bond that was obviously forged in blood in the shared mateship and sacrifice of Australia and PNG in the Second World War. Like many members of this chamber who have visited Papua New Guinea, I fell in love with the place when I saw it in person. There's the incredible diversity and courage of the population, and you just can't help but want these people to succeed. But they are facing a very significant challenge at the moment.
Last night, I and other members attended a briefing with Save the Children, who do excellent work in Papua New Guinea, on the current state of the COVID outbreak there. This is a crisis that should alarm us all. The seven-day rolling average of cases in PNG has increased 15-fold in just one month. There have been 3,359 cases and 36 deaths as at Saturday. There are reports that the situation is considerably worse than the numbers suggest. The case numbers are increasing exponentially because they have very few rapid testing kits—something that Labor has called for the government to provide for some time. Indeed, the CEO of Port Moresby General Hospital, Dr Paki Molumi, has warned about the significant challenges posed to the country by the number of COVID-19 cases. There are serious concerns that we are approaching what has been call the perfect storm of COVID spread.
A health crisis can often be a precursor to economic collapse. PNG's biggest industries, like resources, are grinding to a halt under this health burden. If we don't get on top of this outbreak in PNG quickly, we also risk the virus spreading to the Torres Strait Islands and to Australia. Left to spread through PNG's population unchecked and to their nearest neighbours risks new variants developing which could undermine Australia's vaccine rollout. Helping PNG is the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective and it's also in Australia's national interest. Labor has been calling for the government to step up and help PNG, and we're pleased that the government has announced that it will send them 8,000 of our vaccine doses. But that will be insufficient if we can't get injections into the arms of the PNG people.
One of the biggest barriers to this is vaccine hesitancy and the disinformation being spread on Facebook about the vaccine rollout in that country. Australia has an important role to play in helping to combat this disinformation and increase confidence in the vaccine. We need trusted high-profile voices that are credible in PNG telling people publicly to get the vaccine—voices like members of the NRL, Australian National Rugby League players, who are heroes in PNG. The Melbourne Storm, from my home town, are particularly huge in PNG and players like Marcus Bai really are legends in that country. Getting them to have the jab and broadcasting that process on social media, just as we've done here with our pollies, would be a great place to start. It's vitally important that we stay on stop of this outbreak and be proactive in helping stop the spread in PNG. I call on the Morrison government and the NRL to help make this happen.